Privacy: A Luxury or a Right?

I recently learned that a family friend, Susan, details her incredible journey with adoption reform and adoptee rights in her blog ‘Family Ties’. The blog, which is very well-written and informative regarding the controversies surrounding present-day closed adoption, helps spread awareness of not only Susan’s struggle, but the struggles of many other adult adoptees. Naïve to the adoption process and law, I had never considered some of the less obvious hardships undergone by the adoptee, primarily having no access to family medical records. When Susan found out she had Stage II Melanoma cancer 16 years ago, she immediately tried to find her birth mother to obtain valuable records that could contribute to her treatment plan. She was denied by first the adoption agency and then the state of NJ…and finally even her own birth mother. (During a brief change of heart, Susan’s birth mother did agree to fill out a medical questionnaire, but only after Susan made the promise to not contact her again for fear her privacy could be breached.)

Knowing Susan and the lovely woman that she is (how could someone not want to know her?) and her story got me thinking – what is privacy in today’s society? I looked up the standard definition:

ImageFree from being observed…free from being disturbed…free from public attention…hmm. In the age of social media, is that even achievable?

ImageIn this day and age, privacy is somewhat inconsistent. With Facebook, Twitter and Instagram people are constantly giving up their privacy by posting about their day, listing where they work, what town they live in, who they are dating, what their weddings look like, when their kids are born, when their ADOPTED kids are born and even when they are going on vacations (a burglar’s dream!). We enter and save our financial information on sites like Amazon and PayPal without a thought, and use email systems like Gmail that openly access content from our personal messages to trigger advertisements targeted specifically to us. We may even allow apps to “use” our current location – letting complete strangers track us on our phones!

Then there is the larger controversy, such as the NSA developments, where we have no idea exactly how much of our personal information is being tracked. Add in big data? We may as well be writing our social security numbers on bathroom stall walls!

But how is social media affecting privacy on a whole?

Susan was denied rights to her own birth certificate and she made the promise to never contact her mother again, but that didn’t stop her from using the infinite Internet to keep tabs on her mother. In fact, she had long-term plans to connect with her half-sister someday. This past September, after recently learning her cancer had returned as Stage 4 Melanoma, Susan unexpectedly learned the identity of her half-sister, whose husband had recently died. She had done a quick google search and both her half-sister and her birth mother were listed in the obituary. Susan’s daughter, Jen, who had made promises to no one, took it as a sign to reach out to the sister with a letter. She knew it was a risk, but because of the health of her mom, she couldn’t ignore the urge.

What happened next was amazing. Jen received a tearful call from her mom’s half-sister (her half-aunt?) overcome with joy to receive Jen’s letter. Not long before she did, she had discovered Susan’s existence when cleaning out her mother’s things (her mother had recently been moved to a retirement home) because she had found the original birth certificate. Soon Susan was reunited with not one, but two lost sisters (her mother had never mentioned the second one) – a true miracle thanks to the Internet and perhaps a primal instinct of persistence.

It may have taken 16 years, but despite adoption agency regulations and state laws, Susan was able to find the information she needed to connect with her birth family using technology. Had the laws been different, Susan may have been able to reach out to her sisters long ago, perhaps even learning key factors about her medical history that were not detailed in the questionnaire her mother completed.

ImageDo I think the NJ law should be changed so that all adult adoptees can find their birth mothers? I don’t know that there is a clear “yes/no” answer. In knowing Susan and reading her blog, I support her efforts. But it’s also very complicated as there are pros and cons to both sides of the debate. Adoption laws do seem very outdated, as they were created in a time when unwed mothers were disgraced and a couple’s fertility issues were hush-hush. Today, many people openly gab on social media about being a single mom and I have plenty of “friends” who are a little too open about their struggles to get pregnant. While I know it often comes down to having the choice to disclose personal information, I’d also argue that many people on social media do not fully realize how much privacy they are actually giving up. Are we educating our young people on social media? Are we warning them sufficiently? Are we preparing them well enough for what the world may become? Furthermore, during this privacy revolution and while many people are so free with their personal information on a daily basis, should an adult who was adopted as a child STILL be denied the right to obtain crucial, potentially life-saving personal family history?

Perhaps the most crucial question, however – what is privacy today and what can we expect in the future? Should we expect that in our changing world of technology and social media it is a luxury of the past? Is fighting for it a losing battle? What role should the government play in protecting our privacy and how much should we, if we can, protect ourselves? Because of social media tools like Instagram and Facebook, I’m not sure that the Millennial generation places the same value on privacy as generations past. Since the children are the future, our privacy is likely in their hands.

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